It was 1209 and a twenty-seven year old Francis of Assisi and some of his companions walked from Assisi to Rome for papal approval of a new way of life. So began the Franciscan family.
These men, and later the Poor Sisters under the inspiration of Saint Clare, initiated a way of life marked by simplicity, humility, hospitality and poverty, endeavouring to live the life of the primitive church. The brothers and sisters' way of life soon attracted hundreds and then thousands and the friars moved beyond central Italy, north to Germany, west to France, England and as missionaries to North Africa.
In 1219 history records the unsuccessful attempt Francis made to end the Crusades by converting the Muslim Sultan. Subsequently five of the friars were martyred in North Africa and their bodies were taken to Portugal to be buried in the Augustinian church at Coimbra. Fernando a local Augustinian, was so moved by their example he joined the Franciscans. Known today as Saint Anthony of Padua, he has had a profound influence on Franciscan life and traditions even to this day.
It is a perplexing issue that there are three different groups of friars- the Friars Minor, the Capuchin Friars, and the Conventual Friars. It has much to do with themes of reform and organisation within the Franciscan family. The Franciscan Order has grown in moments of reforming inspiration. There has been a tension between 'charism' and 'institution', 'spirit' and 'law', 'renewal' and 'decadence', 'anarchy' and 'vitality'.
With the rapid growth of the Order there took place a change of place, from simple dwellings outside the towns, to well established friaries in the towns. Then a change of status, from the simplicity of the brother to the sophisticated role of the educated priest-friar. Finally a change of style, a movement from rather small suburban places to larger and permanent friaries in the cities, from a contemplative life style to ministry in parishes and universities.
Out of the debates on poverty and life-style we now have the three male branches of the Order:- The Order of Friars Minor (OFM) the Capuchin Friars (OFM Cap.) and the Conventual Friars (OFM Conv) Each of these traces its history back to the earliest days of the fraternity, and each shows in different ways the results of the long struggles of reform and division that have characterised the Lesser Brothers from the beginning.
In Australia, the OFM friars are involved among other ministries in parishes, chaplaincies and education that includes the care of Padua College, established in 1956.
The history of the Franciscan Order is a long and complex one. It demonstrates the best and worst of human nature as individuals and communities have struggled to implement and interpret the ideals of St Francis and St Clare for 800 years.